The Bavarians can qualify for the Champions League knockout stage this week but are on the lookout for a new head coach. What exactly happened?
Over the weekend, the inevitable finally happened at Bayern Munich. For Manuel Neuer, it was a heavy defeat at the hands of a well-drilled team. For the fans, it was the “Kovac Out” moment that they had long been pining for.
“I think that it was foreseeable somewhat,” Neuer told reporters after Bayern had been smashed 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday in the Bundesliga, where Jerome Boateng had been sent off as early as the ninth minute.
“That’s why what happened is no shock for me. You saw the game in Bochum [a muted 2-1 DFB-Pokal win], so it’s not a massive surprise for me what happened here. It should not be attributed to the fact that we received a red card in the early stage of the game, but rather that things aren’t working. That’s what we have to tackle; we’re analysing it and addressing things.
“But something definitely has to change.”
By Sunday evening, their managerial status had changed, with Niko Kovac on the lookout for a new job after leaving the club by mutual consent. The Croatian jumped before he was pushed, offering his resignation during a meeting with Bayern’s bosses including Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Just 33 days earlier, the 48-year-old was the man who had masterminded Bayern’s 7-2 away win over Tottenham in the Champions League. So what exactly happened to call time on the Kovac regime?
It seemed as if Kovac’s days were numbered at Bayern Munich right from the very beginning. He was not even the club’s first choice when his appointment was announced in the summer of 2018. After Jupp Heynckes decided to retire, Thomas Tuchel had been the preferred candidate of Bayern’s hierarchy, but the former Borussia Dortmund head coach went to Paris Saint-Germain instead.
Kovac had relative success with previous club Eintracht Frankfurt – the team that ultimately ended his Bayern reign – keeping them in the Bundesliga before competing for Europe and winning the DFB-Pokal by beating Bayern in the final. That cup victory gave him his first managerial honour, but annoyed some Bayern fans in the process as he had already been announced as the club’s permanent replacement for Heynckes.
Those same fans had hoped for a bigger name as Bayern head coach and many felt he was not up to the task of managing a club of such stature. After an initial honeymoon period where they won their first four Bundesliga games in 2018-19, cracks began to appear and back-to-back losses to Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach brought the first signs of pressure for Kovac.
Some of that pressure came from inside the dressing room as playmaker James Rodriguez questioned the Croatian’s pragmatic approach, hitting out by saying: “We’re not in Frankfurt now.”
A month later, defeat to title rivals Borussia Dortmund increased the tension further, but club president Hoeness backed Kovac and he was retained for the second half of the season. Bayern lost just one domestic game in that period, winning the league and cup double.
But in Europe, Kovac was floundering. Liverpool outclassed them in the second leg of the last 16 tie at home in Munich, where Robert Lewandowski criticised the team’s tactics and approach, claiming Bayern were too defensive.
That complaint has been levelled at Kovac by his critics as well, who say that his Bayern team lacked a clear identity, especially in attack, where Kovac relied too much on individual moments of brilliance rather than a structured build-up.
Lewandowski, by way of an example, has scored 20 goals in 16 games to this point and is secure in his status as the world’s best No.9.
The same critics usually failed to point out how he had done a good job at developing players during this transitionary period for Bayern. Serge Gnabry has become one of the best wide players in Europe under his watch, Niklas Sule has replaced Mats Hummels as Bayern and Germany’s most important defender, while Joshua Kimmich is not only one of the best right-backs in the world, but has become a tremendous option in defensive midfield for club and country.
Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic should shoulder some of the responsibility for the club’s struggles too after failing to bring in the type of defensive midfielder Kovac sought to add, ensuring that Thiago Alcantara was asked to play in a deeper role than usual with no alternatives in the squad.
Salihamidzic also failed to sign any of his preferred wingers, with the club left embarrassed as Chelsea refused to sell Callum Hudson-Odoi while the public pursuit of Leroy Sane ultimately ended in failure as the Manchester City wideman was injured before Bayern could pull the trigger.
Being Plan B from the get-go and having the task of rebuilding Bayern in the post-Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery era was always going to be difficult for any manager. A more decorated coach or a bigger name might have been given more time when things got difficult.
Kovac’s time always looked short as a result, and the start to the 2019-20 season made it impossible for a team with expectations like Bayern to keep him in charge. Kovac lost just two of his 15 games in all competitions this season, but narrow wins over lower-league opposition in the cup are not acceptable for Germany’s most-successful side.
Similarly, Bayern struggled to beat Paderborn in the league and could only draw 2-2 at Augsburg. Injuries to key players such as Sule and summer signing Lucas Hernandez did not help Kovac’s cause, but these are sides that Bayern should beat easily. Defensive frailties have haunted Kovac’s team this season, while dominance and possession did not lead to as many goals as they should have.
His relationship with the media began to grow tetchy as pressure rose and his handling of senior players left a lot to be desired. Thomas Muller is a club legend, but admitted he may have to think about his future after being repeatedly benched for loan signing Philippe Coutinho.
Even worse than Kovac’s comments that Muller was now a backup was when he said that Eintracht Frankfurt’s fans were the best in Germany. Even if he believes this to be true, praising another club’s fans at the expense of your own is a surefire way to make enemies from your supporters.
The 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt was Bayern’s worst result in a decade and was just the final nail in the coffin of someone who looked doomed from the outset. To his credit, it is probably a surprise Kovac lasted so long.